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Kees van Dongen (French, 1877–1968)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

French painter and printmaker of Dutch birth. He took evening classes in geometric drawing from 1892 to 1897 at the Akademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Rotterdam. In 1895 he began working intermittently for the newspaper Rotterdamsche Nieuwsblad, for which he made, among other things, a series of bright watercolour drawings of Rotterdam’s red-light district and illustrations of Queen Wilhelmina’s coronation. Van Dongen’s first paintings used dark tones in imitation of Rembrandt, who remained the most important model for his work; his later book on Rembrandt was, in fact, a projection of his own life. By the mid-1890s he was using more vivid contrasts of black and white, for example in Spotted Chimera (1895; priv. col., see Chaumeil, pl. 1), his palette soon becoming brighter and his line more animated. In Le Muet Windmill (1896; priv. col., see Chaumeil, pl. 7), a red ochre monochrome painting, he successfully enlivened the colour by means of broad, energetic brushstrokes.

From 1897 van Dongen lived mostly in Paris, where he held his first exhibition in 1898 and met Félix Fénéon, who introduced him in 1903 to the group of painters associated with the Revue Blanche. He also made a name for himself by publishing popular, politically orientated drawings in a number of periodicals—for example in L’Assiette au Beurre, 30 (26 Oct 1901; see Chaumeil, figs 26–8), a special issue devoted to prostitution in contemporary Paris, a phenomenon thought to be symptomatic of the degeneration of the bourgeoisie—anticipating Fauvism with the bright colours and sketchy style of these drawings in India ink and wash. His Fauve period began with the oil painting Sideshow (1904; Paris, BernheimJeune; see Chaumeil, pl. I), which reinterpreted the Neo-Impressionist technique of divisionism in terms of loose, dynamic brushstrokes of unmixed colour and blurred boundaries between spaces and forms. Although coming into contact with the work of Die Brücke in 1908, van Dongen remained dedicated to Fauvism until 1912 in works such as Saltimbanque with Nude Breast (The Dancer Nini at the Folies Bergères) (c. 1907–8; Paris, Pompidou), developing his characteristic style of sensuous curved lines, warm tones and violent brushwork. Women were his favourite subjects, sometimes shown nude and almost invariably presented in an erotic manner in endlessly varied poses, set inside a circus, theatre or music-hall as in In the Plaza: Women at a Balustrade (c. 1911; St Tropez, Mus. Annonciade). He also painted colourful flower-pieces far removed from conventional still-lifes.

Van Dongen’s travels through Spain, Morocco and Egypt in 1910 and 1913 resulted in a series of sombre but striking landscapes. His continuing attraction to the exotic led him to accept a commission to illustrate an edition of Les Mille et Une Nuits (Paris, 1918) by Dr Mardrus. In 1911 he participated in the first exhibition of the Moderne kunstkring, and in 1913 he exhibited paintings with rather elongated figures whose sharp contours made them resemble silhouettes, such as the Spanish Shawl (Woman with Pigeons) (1913; Paris, Pompidou). These led in turn to monochrome figures with decorative arabesques, which he continued to paint until well into the 1920s and which show his natural feeling for pose in its purest form.

From 1918 van Dongen concentrated on portraits of the beau monde in Paris, earning a reputation as chronicler of the period. With the portrait of Charles Rappoport (exh. Paris, Salon d’Automne, 1920; Rotterdam, Mus. Boymans–van Beuningen) he established a formula for the modern official portrait, painting the sitter’s face and hands in detail using subtle tones, while leaving the background largely grey with the exception of some colourful accessory or a patch of bright material. In their diversity van Dongen’s portraits managed to give a characteristic, in some cases deliberately stereotyped, depiction of his contemporaries that lent them also a documentary value. Portraits remained his principal genre, although in the 1950s he reduced the format. In lithography he found the graphic medium best suited to his fluent line; he developed a decorative version of the portrait by using elongated arabesques and by stylizing the face with unusually large eyes and mouth, as in Brigitte Bardot (c. 1955; see Kyriazi, 1976, p. 84). He became a French citizen in 1929.

Anneke E. Wijnbeek
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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